Pacific Crest Trail Thru Hike: Tales of the Trail – Sierra Edition

Pinchot and Mather: Double Pass Day 

Despite Pinchot Pass being named after a man who would have wanted a casino at its summit, it is wild, craggy and untouched. To the northwest, the trail falls away into a tarn filled basin, each gem of azure blue water connected by a swift stream. Pinchot was relatively gentle going up, and just as gentle going down. The blaring reflection of midday sun off of Lake Majorie caused us to shield our eyes as we skirted along its granite shoreline. The trail drops away suddenly and hits the valley of the Kings River, running along the water for several, well graded miles.

Suspension bridge in the valley before Pinchot Pass. Only one person at a time!

Suspension bridge in the valley before Pinchot Pass. Only one person at a time!

Doing two passes in a day is not common. Most hikers will find a natural one pass rhythm, sleeping either low or high, depending on style and preference. There are certainly hikers doing 30 miles per day, but I am not one of those hikers, especially in the Sierra. 15 to 20 miles a day, which most thru hikers consider a ‘hard’ day in the sierra, will get you where you need to go. If you want to camp high, your mornings are spent descending, and your afternoons, ascending. If you want to camp low, well you get the point.

Looking back from atop Pinchot Pass

Looking back from atop Pinchot Pass

If you want to do at least one ‘double pass day,’ Pinchot and Mather are probably your best bet. The approach to Mather is quite tame, following a fork of the Kings River up a lackluster  climb. Before the last approach to Mather, the trail flattens out on a treeless basin, stuffed with tarns of various sizes.

Alpine Lake

Alpine Lake

Mather Pass is a large gouge taken out of the dark stone of an ancient glacial moraine. From the basin, the moraine looks like a dark, bellicose bastion. Pending violence hangs upon the stone like moss on a tree, and even the switchbacks feel too sharp.

Heading towards Mather Pass. Lake Majorie in distance.

Heading towards Mather Pass. Lake Majorie in distance.

Two passes conquered, Legs and I spent a long time on Mather’s battlements. Food just tastes better on top of a mountain pass, its science. Correction, everything is better on top of a mountain pass. Ahead, the trail runs away briefly, before it vanishes behind a ridge line.

The terrain north of Mather is steeply downhill, with a particular section of stone switchbacks known for their golden hue. It was late afternoon when we started making our way down from the pass and into the Palisade Lakes basin, passing several exposed and amazing campsites along upper and lower Palisade Lakes.

Mather Pass

Mather Pass

By a stroke of luck, we came to the Golden Staircase at the perfect time of the day. This well named system of granite switchbacks faces the southwest, allowing the late afternoon sun to bathe the granite in golden light. With each cut, we sank deeper into Palisade Canyon and into the old growth trees of its narrow valley. The trail makes its way along the gushing creek, with many places to camp on its banks. Legs and I slept close to the water, under the pale, white light of the moon.

When Things Go Wrong

It’s easy to imagine when ready this blog, that every day out here is as perfect as an ending to a Disney fairytale. Where days are measured in hearty chortles, spontaneous skinny dipping, and passionate dances around campfires. You can imagine the basic, simplicity of carrying your life on your back, the hardening effects of sleeping under the wild stars, and the steel glint in your eye gained after conquering day after day of Trail Life. You are the modern-day adventurer, and you laugh in the face of danger, discomfort, and wet feet. Of course, this is not true, and as I watched the southbound hiker directly ahead of me stop, and begin to fight the woods, it was just as easy to imagine things going very wrong.

Legs had stopped suddenly. I looked up and saw her staring at a female hiker about 40 feet away. Something was wrong, the air uncomfortably tense, like a rubber band stretched to its absolute limit. The hiker was clutching two pieces of a broken stick and staring at them like they were about to explode. Instead, she exploded, throwing the pieces of wood in opposite directions and shouting with a quavering and uncontrolled voice. She picked up plants and threw them at rocks, she picked up rocks and threw them at plants. She landed blow after brutal blow to the flora around her, stamping down hard on their delicate bodies with her clunky, leather hiking boots. All the while stammering incoherent curses and pitiful whimpers.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m fine. Just having a little breakdown.” she replied, sitting down on a large rock and putting her face in her hands. Legs and I shot fleeting glances at each other, unsure what to do.

“Baaaaaaaabe!” Her boyfriend rounded the corner, holding the two pieces of the stick she had thrown. He drew out each word he said in a small, quiet voice. “Whaaaaat haaaaaappened?”

The Trail skirts a lake

The Trail skirts a lake

What the hell had happened? Shortly after leaving these two weekend warriors to their own devices, Legs and I burst into laughter. What are the odds that we would be there, in that small area of narrow valley, at that time of the day, to witness this hiker go completely insane, at what may have been the loss of a walking stick.

She had snapped, Legs mused, because her walking stick had broken. Whether it was her first and only stick, made precious by days of dependent use on the trail, or the umpteenth twig to have broken that day, will never be known. All we will know, is that its breaking was the last straw.

Lush Valley

Lush Valley

It doesn’t matter where you are, the Range of Light, or the urine tinged subway platforms of New York. Things fall apart. As humans, we cannot truly escape stress, and you will soon find out that even out here, stress and anxiety will find you. Yes, being out in the woods hiking every day, is kind of ‘wilderness therapy,’ and personally, I have benefited from its medicinal qualities. But, even out here, some days just suck. Some days the uphills proceed at a snail’s pace, and the downhills come no easier. Sometimes it feels like you are walking through quicksand, using all you strength and mental conditioning to just take another step, then another, then another. You stop caring about the vistas and the simplicity and how cool you are. Instead you think about the crunch of swollen feet, the stab of open blisters, how each step is an agonizing chore. You ask yourself, why am I fucking doing this? I couldn’t have only gone 3 miles!? And why the hell is my backpack squeaking every time I take a step?!?!

Some thru hikers say that certain people are not made for the trail, but I don’t subscribe to that ideology. For one thing, I think I am pretty damn good at this, and I have my fair share of bad days. I’ve woken up and dreaded moving, let alone hiking twenty plus hard miles. There is a lot of monotonous, tedious action each day, which can be very frustrating.  Sometimes you just don’t want to hike, and you have to, making the action seem like work.  Suddenly, you just want a bed to sleep on, to not have to clean your water, to just relax and not worry about the upcoming thousands of miles. Sometimes you can smell yourself and that is just depressing in itself.

When it comes down to it, a view like this is worth a week of bad days

When it comes down to it, a view like this is worth a week of bad days. (CRED: Nicole Frias)

Some hikers whine loudly about how the book Wild and its impending movie, will bring masses of new, inexperienced hikers and weekend warriors to the trail. GOOD! More people should be out here, enjoying the natural beauty of the earth and learning something new about themselves. Within the basic simplicity of Trail Life we are able to leave behind our biases and barriers and see better the world, and our place on it. It’s just walking, but there is so much to gain from doing it. Growth on the trail is not measured in miles or climbs, but in the way we deal with adversity. There is an old proverb, “After mountain, more mountains.  It doesn’t come down to physical prowess, the retirees and non athletes on the trail prove that. Rather, success comes from within, and maybe the ability to lie to yourself sometimes.

In the end, I’d rather have someone be an ‘ignorant’ hiker, than being an ignorant townie. At least they’re on the trail. Everyone starts somewhere. It’s hard, and they learn and adapt. And then it’s not so hard. Then you look up and you are over 800 miles in, and despite some bad days, things are looking up.

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